In 1939, amid the Great Depression, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt met with Roma leader Steve Kaslov in New York City to discuss how the crisis had affected Romani Americans. In her diary, she wrote: “They are a sad people and a minority group I feel we should try to help.” That was a historic and very rare expression of White House concern for the struggles of Romani Americans.
Today, as a new Democratic administration is about to take over amid another crisis, Romani American activists hope that the issue of discriminations the community has been facing for decades will finally be addressed.
With a population of about one million, Romani Americans have been part of the diverse American ethnic mosaic for centuries. Historically, Roma people arrived mainly from Europe, escaping oppression and hoping for a better life. But anti-Roma sentiments followed them across the Atlantic. Here, in the United States, there are also enduring stereotypes about a “culture of criminality” within the Romani community.
Such prejudice not only leads to discrimination against Romani Americans in their everyday life, but has also informed discriminatory law enforcement practices. A November 2020 study conducted by the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University and Voice of Roma, a nonprofit based in California, has demonstrated the prevalence of institutional discrimination the Roma are facing in the US.
Two-thirds of the 363 Romani Americans interviewed perceived the portrayal of Romani people in media, including film and television, as profoundly derogatory and dehumanising. Typically, Roma people are depicted as criminals, wanderers, or witches. Such stereotyping serves to justify anti-Romani discrimination and harassment and is rarely challenged by media commentators.
There is yet to be a comprehensive study of anti-Roma discrimination in the US, but it appears that racial profiling by police is very common. Four out of 10 Romani people we interviewed said they had experienced such mistreatment. According to study participants, police officers target Roma Americans and look for Romani-specific attributes, such as certain types of trucks, trailers, mobile homes, or Romani names.
George (not his real name), one of our interviewees who works as a paving contractor, said he is often identified as Roma because of his trailer (some Romani Americans live in mobile homes) and paving equipment, which makes him vulnerable to police abuse. Having faced frequent police harassment, he said he has developed strategies to cope with it, including being extremely polite and remaining silent even when experiencing humiliating treatment.
His story is not exceptional. When study participants were asked if they and/or other family members had ever been treated unfairly or disrespectfully by a law enforcement officer on the basis of ethnicity, a full one-half of them stated that they had.
These results are hardly surprising given how law enforcement across the country has embraced stereotypes about Roma criminality.
In recent years, police departments have set up task forces specialised in “G*psy crimes”, appointed “G*psy crime” detectives, and organised police training courses on “G*psy criminality”. The National Association of Bunco Investigators (NABI), an organisation of law enforcement professionals focusing on “non-traditional organised crime”, has even created a database of individuals arrested or suspected of criminal activity, which clearly marked those who were Roma.
Gary Nolte, former NABI president, has featured the database prominently in his CV, where he writes: “Since 2001, I have developed a database containing suspects of all Gypsy descents, South American Theft Group suspects, and ‘Con Artists’ in general. The database and CD contains over 4,000 photos which assist Law Enforcement nationally …”
While alarmingly few community members and media outlets have raised questions about the legality of such initiatives, there have been some modest victories. For instance, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office cancelled their class, entitled “Without Mercy: Criminal Gypsies/Travelers & the Elderly”, after receiving an inquiry from The Oregonian/OregonLive about it. But the Gryphon Training Group, founded by Nolte and one of the main contractors for such classes, have organised courses in other states, including in California, Colorado, and Missouri.
With US Romani advocacy and scholarship still in their early stages of development, calls for anti-discrimination action go unheard by state institutions. Even organisations dedicated to human rights and civil liberties lack awareness about Romani Americans’ struggles and do little to address anti-Roma bias.
The twisted idea of the Romani people’s inherent criminality has many similarities to misconceptions about other racial and ethnic groups in the US and the discrimination and abuse Roma face at the hands of law enforcement officers has to become part of the ongoing public conversation about police violence. When the new administration acts on public demands to end racial profiling, it must also include Romani Americans.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.